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1, 2-4: The Incredible Shrinking Media
What if You Held a U.S. Debut and Nobody Came?
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider
There were 2000
reporters in New Hampshire this week to cover what was only one
round of a long presidential campaign. There were none at the John
Jay College Theater in Manhattan Thursday, to witness the one-night
only debut of a major modern dance company from Hungary. WHAT'S
WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?
I don't know
for a fact that 0 journalists were in the house when Gerzson Peter
Kovacs's Tranzdanz made its U.S. debut with Kovacs's 1999 "Co-Ax,"
danced with severe concentration by Kovacs and Veronika Vamos. But
I do know that I did not see any of my colleagues from the New York
Times or Village Voice in attendance. The American ambassador to
Budapest, Peter Tufo, came all the way from Hungary to be there.
The Hungarian Consul General, Laszlo Molnar, was there too. So was
Jonathan Hollander, whose Battery Dance, working with the consulate,
had arranged for Tranzdanz to open Battery's 24th anniversary gala
program. And yet, as far as I could see, the Times could not be
bothered to send someone the 20 blocks from its West 43rd Street
offices to record this one-time only event.
And I have to
Was it because....
1. There was
a lot of other dance opening in New York last night? Hmmm...let's
see. At Symphony Space, we had Triple Play Dance, featuring premieres
by Doug Elkins and Terry Creach, and a performance by the trio of
Gus Solomons jr., Carmen de Lavalllade, and Dudley Williams. I think
there may have been something at St. Mark's Church too. A couple
of performer debuts up the street at City Ballet, but no new work.
2. It was snowing?
Sound of smallest violin in the world playing, accompanied by crocodile
3. No one would
be interested in the concert anyway, except for maybe other dancers?
Looking around the theater, I saw a sea of suits, some Ladies Who
Lunch, and others whose posture made it clear to me they were not
dancers. (Not a criticism; my posture says the same!) Usually when
I go to a dance concert, I see at least a couple of dancers I know,
and a lot who, even if I don't know them, I know are dancers. Not
the case here. When I remarked on the unusualness of this to Hollander
and asked him who this audience was, he explained that this being
a gala, the audience included a lot of corporate sponsors and board
members. Looking at the donor list, I see Citibank, the Trust for
Mutual Understanding, Con Edison, Bell Atlantic, Deloitte & Touche,
My point: Some
of this was very weird modern dance, folks, but the audience was
not just the inbred usual-suspect fanatical kinetic dancer crowd.
These people read The Economist in the morning, not to mention the
Times--too bad they can't read about a dance concert that even in
their non-insiderness they considered worthwhile.
4. The company
was too obscure? For much of its existence, Hollander and Battery
Dance have been a force in bringing companies from India and elsewhere
here, and an emissary to these countries for U.S. dance. Battery
has also provided subsidized studio space--a couple of years ago,
I heard the price was $5, bargain basement for New York and a godsend
to beginning companies.
5. The dance
wasn't any good? Kovacs kind of sneaks up on you. At first, as the
curtain comes up on he and Vamos far upstage right, backlit by yellow-turning-orange
light, and they start swinging their arms, you think: Oh no, another
one of those Eastern European things where they can't get over the
marvel of their upper limbs. The two are stationary, facing the
audience, elbows crooked, swinging their arms back and forth. They
are two-dimensional. Occasionally, one of Kovacs's shoulders jerks
up, marionette-like, to make a downwards slope towards the other
one. The two dancers never intersect each others' planes. When I
had seen this dance on film at a preview the other night, I worried,
"Oh no, 45 minutes of monotony," and last night, at first, the live
version lived down to this under-expectation. I couldn't resist
looking around to seeing how the suits and Ladies Who Lunch received
it. One middle-aged guy in glasses was rocking to the beat. The
dapper younger guy across the aisle from me was trying to keep his
bored chin up with his palm. A couple in the row behind me were
unabashedly snickering and kept looking at each other in astonishment;
this annoyed me, and I decided it was a reflection of their limitations,
not the dance's. (Later on, after the premiere of Hollander's "Jenny
Lind Dances," putatively about "perhaps the most famous opera singer
of the 19th century," say the program notes, a gentleman behind
me who might have seen the real thing exclaimed, "It makes no sense.
What does Jenny Lind have to do with what we have seen? Jenny Lind
was an opera singer, not a ballet dancer." I share this not necessarily
to damn the dance for unspecicivity, but to praise the watcher for
ANYWAY, as the
music for "Co-Ax" subtly shifted from sort of slowed-down techno
riffs to adagio strings and back to more jaunty techno, I realized
that, indeed, the dance was shifting too. New gestures were being
added; more important, the couple was gradually making its way across
and downstage. Now they were intersecting each other's planes, tho
still not looking at each other--and, significantly, not touching,
even as they seemed to weave around each other. The legs, too, started
to get involved, where previously they had mostly served to support
the mobile, tilting torsoes. More dimensions started being used,
as a dancer would throw in a subtle shift. Vamos even went to the
floor. A choreographic weakness I noticed was that the designs for
Kovacs seemed more intricate and more deeply danced; his mustachioed
face was riveting in its fixed distance.
As I watched
this dance of intimate distance, somewhere in the back of my head
it dawned on me what Kovacs's luscious objective was. "Of course!"
I exclaimed in satisfaction as, finally, the backlighting changing
to an intimate spotlight on Kovacs and Vamos, they placed their
hands around each others waists and begun to circle. I knew this
was the conclusion and, indeed, as they spun, the lights faded.
When they came up for the applause, the partners tripped in an off-balance
For a deceptively
simple dance, "Co-Ax" had a lot of effort in it. Not just in its
performance--tho, in person, I should say the monotony I'd sensed
on film was banished; seeing it with live performers, you felt their
body heat. No, what was behind this was the tax dollars of the Hungarian
people, which funded this visit through the consulate and the ministry
of culture. This stands in embarrassing contrast to our government's
virtual elimination of funding for international touring, with the
expectation that private concerns like David Eden's Trust for Mutual
Understanding will step into the breach. As Ambassador Tufo commented,
diplomatically, before the show: "Cultural exchange is part of the
State Department's policy that's been largely ignored in the last
ten years," thanks to a stingy Congress. "We are trying to change
that by creativity rather than money." Tufo, who must have played
a key role in convincing Hungary to acquiesce in the NATO bombing
of Serbia last year to stop the slaughter in Kosovo, noted that
"Cultural differences can lead to bloodshed and war. One of our
objectives is to bring American culture to Hungary, so as to make
less likely that the things in Kosovo are repeated in the region."
Kovacs says that since the fall of Communism in Hungary in 1990,
if anything, funding for the arts and, specifically, modern dance
has gone UP every year! He had a recent scare when the municipality
of Budapest threatened to sell the theater in which Tranzdanz performs.
This, however, seems to have been solved by a partnership with a
provincial jazz group which will buy the theater with Tranzdanz.)
What was also
behind this tour was the effort--and, I have to say, the HUMILITY--of
Hollander, whose company performed last year in Budapest. His work,
to which the second half of the concert was given over, did not
in my mind stand up to Kovacs's. Hollander's use of space was nowhere
near as sophisticated. The dancing, more mobile on the surface,
was superficially performed; particularly in "Zero...Two...Blue...Heaven...Seven,"
set to a wannabe Ivesian commissioned score by Frank Carlberg. The
intonations or rather atonalations were abrasively (not convincingly--there's
a difference!) weird for weirdo's sake, and any weirdness in the
ballet was merely indicated by the dancers, not believed.
But WAIT A MINUTE--there's
a problem here, and it's not in the choreography, but its dissection
by me, and only me. It's not fair to the choreographer that I be
the only one to hold forth on the quality of his work. One "critic"
should not have so much power. The failure here is not by the artist,
but the media. You should have more than one opinion to weigh. This
is not a personal indictment of my colleagues, but rather, an institutional
one of a mainstream media which values dance so little--indeed,
which just doesn't get it--even when not "just" dancers, but corporations
and governments tell a different story.
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